Character, Leveraging Performance

Character: Leveraging Performance and Relational Strengths in Zero and Non-Zero Sum Climates


Cortland State's Tom Lickona and Matt Davidson claim that character strengths fall into two categories: performance and relational. Performance and relational character are not mutually exclusive. Lickona and Davidson suggest that performance character focuses on the diligence, perseverance, and self-discipline necessary to a commitment to professional, academic, athletic, and other areas of excellence. Moral or relational character embodies the traits of "integrity, justice, caring, and respect needed for successful interpersonal relationships and ethical behavior" within a specific enterprise.


Performance and relational character is alive and well in the competitive enterprises of business, education, sports, and the legal system. Many of these ventures are considered to be zero sum games – characterized by situations where one's gain always results in an opposing loss for someone else. Alfie Kohn, the author of No Contest, calls this phenomena "mutually exclusive goal attainment." MEGA is commonly observed in sports as well as in business, education, and many other domains. Chasing the brass ring in zero-sum mode is often what motivates many people to succeed.


Robert Wright, the author of Non-Zero, has claimed that as societies become more complex, specialized, and interdependent, there is a movement towards finding non-zero sum solutions in enterprises. A non-zero sum climate is characterized by win-win situations within business, education, etc. As interdependence in an enterprise increases, we find that we do better when our fellow employees, students, and teammates also do better. The non-zero sum environment enhances the attention and readiness to compete in zero-sum climates.


The essential strategies that cultivate non zero-sum climates are provided within the emerging field of positive psychology, the study of positive and subjective well-being, positive character traits, and positive institutions. It is about focusing on and leveraging what we do well – one's strengths – as opposed to solely concentrating on deficiencies and weaknesses.


Positive Psychology also strives to create the positive institutions within enterprises that allow all involved to grow and to experience the flourishing of personal virtues and strengths. Focusing on strengths and positive emotions promotes individual and collective flourishing which results in the development of strong, supportive relationships and healthy traditions. Martin Seligman (2002), a pioneer in the field, says it best: "We need a psychology of rising to the occasion because that is the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of predicting human behavior."


Positive professional and educational cultures can foster productivity, collegiality, support for hard work, high expectations for achievement, and the ethical high road. Today, the field of positive psychology encompasses the work of a wide array of notable researchers in not only psychology, but also in sociology, health, medicine, organizational studies, business management, and other disciplines. The field has economic consequences significant enough to have already garnered one Nobel Prize in economics. Organizations as diverse as Best Buy, Whirlpool, and David's Bridal, are implementing positive psychology-based programs that focus on leveraging employee strengths. The field has become the subject of numerous articles in widely read publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Time, Scientific American, and Psychology Today and New York Times Magazine.


By promoting a strengths-based approach in academic, leadership, fine arts, wellness and athletic programs, Culver makes the mission-based connection between the mind, body and spirit come alive. An awareness and understanding of character strengths and their relationship to well-being is a valuable tool for young people as they navigate their journeys through adolescence to adulthood. Knowing what particular traits look like when they come alive may be instructive and informative for both educators and students.


The cultivation of character strengths typically doesn't happen in isolation, and the empirical research advocates addressing character from a multidimensional perspective. Each student has a unique set of combinations of signature (higher) strengths, that in concert are uniquely valuable to his or her thoughts, feelings, and behavior. These may include strengths such as creativity, persistence, integrity, vitality, fairness, humility, and gratitude.


Ask yourself the following “strengths” questions:

  1. What are your strengths? How do you know?
  2. How often and under what circumstances do you get to do these things?
  3. How can you increase opportunities to use and develop these strengths in everyday life and work?
  4. What are your most powerful strengths combinations? How can you tell?
  5. How can you use these strengths “teams” more often?

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